The Hebraic Section at the Library of Congress recently digitized a rich collection of rare children’s books and periodicals in Hebrew and Yiddish (from 1900-1929), including many works by the great poet Ḥayyim Nahman Bialik. Ann Brener highlights one work in particular, Bialik’s children’s tale Ha-Tarn’golim v’ha-Shu’al, or The Chickens and the Fox.
Bialik is often called the “father of modern Hebrew poetry,” but he was that and much, much more: writer, editor, translator, publisher. He contributed stories and poems for children to Hebrew periodicals from Kiev to New York; he founded thriving Hebrew presses that published children’s books in Odessa, Berlin, and Tel Aviv. In addition to all this, Bialik was also a tireless redactor of the ancient Hebrew sources, eager to take the ancient Jewish literary treasures out of the Beit Midrash, so to speak, and make them available to Hebrew readers in general. It was this talent for redaction, together with his unparalleled gift for poetry, that Bialik brought to bear on his rhymed Hebrew tale Ha-Tarn’golim v’ha-Shu’al (The Chickens and the Fox), now a classic of Hebrew children’s literature.
For his story, Bialik turned to one of these old and largely forgotten Hebrew sources, Mishlei Shu’alim, a collection of fox fables written by Berekhiah ha-Nakdan, a Jewish scholar who lived in 12th-13th century France or England. Fox fables were a popular genre in his day, and scholars have noted that Berekhiah could have drawn his fables from any number of existing collections, including Aesop’s Fables, then circulating in various vernaculars, or the French fox fables written closer to his own time by Marie de France. Berekhiah did not so much make up his stories as render them in Hebrew for a Jewish audience.